Conor McGregor will return, do not panic, but he can’t shoulder the responsibility of selling the UFC as a product alone.
The UFC lacks superstars, this is no secret. Ronda Rousey has run away with her tail between her legs to WWE. Brock Lesnar looks to be a man made of steroids. Then Jon Jones goes and gets popped by USADA after his emphatic win over Daniel Cormier, and suddenly stardust looks thin on the ground.
The pay-per-view giants are a dying breed, no matter how hard the UFC try and force CM Punk on us. The fans want real fighters. They want champions with charisma and personality who will tempt them to part ways with their weekly wage. Without further ado, here are 5 potential UFC superstars that could be the next wave of pay-per-view beasts.
5. Francis Ngannou
Looking back at the history of the UFC’s highest pay-per-views, fans clearly love watching the heavier divisions. They love sitting on the edge of their seats as two giants throw hammers at each other. Big men like Rampage Jackson, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and of course Brock Lesnar have all broken the fabled million dollar mark, so why not in today’s market?
Chuck Liddell was never much of a talker but people knew him as an intimidating fearmongerer. That was his allure. And they don’t come much scarier than Francis Ngannou. There is a certain aura and buzz surrounding the French-Cameroonian, as he tears through the lower ranks of the Heavyweight division.
Stipe Miocic is an excellent champion, he deserves to be a massive star. Unfortunately, the nice guy routine doesn’t bring in the buys nowadays. You need an extra attribute that will force people to hand over their hard-earned money. For Ngannou that attribute is fear. ‘The Predator’ is six foot five and nearly 19 stone of rippling muscle with his last nine fights ending in finishes before the second round. He needs one big knockout against a fighter with a recognizable name on a huge card for his stock to rise.
Once word starts spreading that there’s a freak of nature in the UFC knocking people out cold, they will bay for more blood. Lastly, Ngannou could be the guiding light that lifts the MMA ban in France and with him bring in a whole new legion of fans to the UFC. Lots of ifs and buts, just keep an eye on the man, you can’t miss him.
4. Max Holloway
The UFC have desperately tried to push the promotion of young, fresh, attractive fighters like Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt, but they forgot the first rule of building a star, they have to be winners.
Max Holloway literally can’t stop winning. What’s more, he’s not beating nobodies. He’s finished big names like José Aldo, Anthony Pettis and Cub Swanson on the way to his 11 fight win streak. 5 fight win bonuses alone should be proof that the boy has talent and gets the crowd off their feet.
At the end of the day, this is the entertainment business and Holloway brings fire in spades. Importantly, the UFC has faith in ‘the blessed one.’ Enough faith to let him headline a card at UFC 212. This is an essential stepping stone if Holloway wants to build his brand.
What could really catapult Holloway into the stratosphere is a super fight. If both he and Cody Garbrandt can build their legacy to a crescendo and meet in the middle, we could have the two youngest champions competing in the same Octagon. A guaranteed seller.
Holloway truly represents the next generation but if he wants to be more than just champion, he needs to keep talking, keep picking the prize fights and the UFC needs to push his marketing. He’s got the skills, he’s only 25, he’s headlining cards, now he just needs the UFC to get behind him and plaster his picture everywhere.
3. Joanna Jendrzejczyk:
More commonly known as Joanna Champion or more brutally as Joanna Violence, the Polish queen of the strawweight division is slowly building a cult following. Despite English not being her mother tongue and the fact that her surname is near unpronounceable, fans are tuning in to watch the violence unfold every time Joanna steps in the cage.
Joanna was the co-main event at two of the biggest pay-per-view events in history at UFC 193 and UFC 205. People underestimate the power of the card underneath the headliner and Joanna’s presence can really boost the ratings.
Her rivalry with Claudia Gadelha is probably the most bitter in women’s UFC history which helped no end in enticing fans to watch. Off screen she has an endearing personality which mutates into vicious aggression the minute the trash talking starts. Her ability to stir up trouble at press conferences is another reason why fans are committing to her story.
The casual fan who only tunes in for Conor’s fights may not know her but as the UFC brand grows and Joanna keeps winning, it will become harder and harder to ignore her. She is the perfect face of Women’s MMA and her huge European fan base cannot be underestimated. Bring on the violence.
2. Kevin Lee:
Unlike Joanna, Holloway and Cody, Kevin Lee is not a champion. In fact, he is only ranked 7 in a very competitive Lightweight division (Conor’s division). So why does he have the potential for stardom?
Firstly he is only 24, already has 9 wins in the division and is fighting Tony Ferguson for the interim belt. Secondly and simply put: people do not like him. He is embracing the villain or heel role perfectly in a similar manner to Floyd Mayweather and people pay money in the hope that one day he will get knocked out. What sets Kevin Lee apart is his nasty streak. He has that edge that tends to ruffle a few feathers and get people talking.
Lee managed to grab headlines after insulting Michael Chiesa’s mum and then backing it up with a controversial victory. The spotlight is a powerful weapon and if chooses to portray himself as the ‘bad guy’ then he could be a huge asset to the UFC.
He dresses well, he speaks well and he has that swagger that seems to rub people up the wrong way. All of Conor McGregor’s opponents have sat back and accepted the verbal beating coming their way. Lee, however, has the potential to create a genuinely intriguing dialogue with the Irishman. A star could be born at UFC 216.
1. Cody Garbrandt:
A young, undefeated champion in the UFC is a rare sight. Cody showed with his dismantling of Dominick Cruz that although his brash, hot-headed pre-fight mentality helps to promote the fight, in the cage he is mature, patient and dangerous.
A coaching role in the Ultimate Fighter and features in magazines such as GQ have increased his exposure and his face is becoming familiar in the mainstream media. His image of the tattooed bad boy, fighting under the moniker ‘No love’ only aids his popularity, in the same way, the public love fighters such as Jon Jones and Conor McGregor.
UFC 207 was really his coming out party. Although he was the co-main event, he can definitely take credit for a share of 1,100,000 pay-per-view buys. People are gradually cottoning on to the immensely talented 26-year-old.
Of course winning is all part of the mystique. If he can defeat top quality opponents like TJ Dillashaw, he will prove to everyone that he is the real deal. People pay to see winners, he really looks like the UFC’s new prized horse. If UFC 217 does big numbers, don’t be surprised if Garbrandt is the man pulling in the numbers, not an ageing Georges St. Pierre